5th Dec '96
Writing About Film Workshop
The proverbial ostrich has often been known to stick its head in the sand and pretend that the wild dogs which hunt it are not there. If ostrichs were found in Hollywood someone would probably make a film which shows that wild dogs are laughable creatures posing no danger to the ostrich who, according to the film, would be the most noble of all creatures. Who could blame the ostrichs for lining up in large numbers to watch this film? They would love to believe in the illusion of comfort that the film sets up for them. And as any con artist will tell you, where there is delusion there is money to be made. Director Robert Zemeckis and screenplay writer Eric Roth have hit the jackpot with Forrest Gump.
But to say that nostalgia for a romanticised notion of 1950s innocence is what sold this film would be to undercut the perverse marketing brilliance which powers it. Someone thought, let us make a film which debunks the '60s and, to make sure it sells, let us use '60s nostalgia to sell it. Nothing as sure fire as that. Look at all those people making love in the open and getting stoned. Look at all those evil people who tried to upset the order of life just because they thought themselves to be smart. Look at them. Look a bit more.
Far be it from me to contradict Zemeckis and Roth when they declare, on a blurb for the soundtrack of this film, that ``Time. Moments in time. Vivid recollections of the moments that impacted our lives'' is what Forrest Gump is about. There is no doubt that the assassinations of John F Kennedy and John Lennon, the death of Elvis and the attempt on Reagan's life and blah blah blah had a great impact on the lives of millions of Americans. Those who were not around the first time are provided periodic opportunities by TV, the print media and films to let these momentous events have great impacts on their lives. These ``moments of time'' have become a habit forming media fix which are regularly fed to the viewing public.
Far be it from me to contradict them when they go on to claim that the thirty-two songs on the films soundtrack ``.. are thirty-two songs that helped define us. Thirty-two songs, from so many, that will always be part of our history.'' All I want to do is add that here are thirty-two songs, at least a few of which were written to protest the very same unseeingly simplistic God-bless-Americanism which this film repackages. Here are thirty-two songs which have been used very effectively in this film to subvert the very subversion that they were meant to represent. If these songs defined the makers of this film then they did a bad job of it.
The contradictions which this marketing ploy cause are not allowed to dilute the uncompromising ``message'' of Forrest Gump. The film works by creating an opposition between Forrest and two of the people who are close to him. The first is his childhood sweetheart Jenny (Robin Wright). She is an abused child who, in the way that abused little girls are supposed to, grows up into a messed up woman whom men exploit (Ah, the wonders of pop psychology!). She is a Joan Baez wannabe who ends up singing naked in a nightclub. When Forrest rescues her from the nightclub and professes his love she tells him that he doesn't know what love is. This sets up the first lesson we are going to learn. Forrest's devotion to her is tenacious, he never so much as looks at another woman. He takes all the rejection and still carries on loving her. She on the other hand defines love in a way that is a '60s stereotype. When they finally make love the '60s are over, the dream is dead. It is Forrest's definition of love which has won through. And although Jenny refuses his offer of marriage she comes to his bed the same night as if to acknowledge that he had been right all along. And it is that single night of love making which results in Jenny conceiving (at least she thinks she has conceived then). How beautiful and pure! Just in case you didn't know, sex is for conception.
Jenny is a stereotype but in the construction of her character the film does a job worth mentioning. There is an effective use of the metaphor of birds. Many reviewers have mentioned the scene in which she tries to jump to her death with the brilliant solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd's ``Free Bird'' playing in the background (Great band that, now if only they hadn't been such racist bigots...) But the scene which makes the comparison most poignant comes towards the end when Forrest stands over her grave talking to her. As he finishes his little monologue the camera moves out and we see a flock of birds rising from the tree. For the tortured twisted Jenny, death is the only form of freedom possible. It is also worth mentioning that the performance turned in by Robin Wright is above average. She definitely plays a part in making Jenny more believable than she is written.
The second important stereotype is Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise does an excellent job portraying a crippled vet), Forrest's commanding officer in Vietnam who becomes a wheelchair-bound embittered cripple. Lt. Dan believes that he had a destiny; he was fated to die in battle. It is a destiny the devoted Gump prevented by carrying him to safety. In his crippled state Lt. Dan has lost all faith in God. Despite the fact that he blames Gump for his condition he begins to get close to him and finally joins him on his shrimping boat as his first mate. As things look up for them financially, he has a change of heart and actually thanks Gump for saving his life in Vietnam. We hear Forrest saying that he thinks that Lt. Dan has made his peace with God. What he doesn't say but implies is that it is thanks to him, Forrest, and his simple faith that Lt. Dan has come around to this point of view. This is forshadowed at a new year's party where Long-limbed Lenore, one of the prostitutes patronised by Lt. Dan, says ``Don't you just love New Years? You can start all over. Everyone deserves a second chance.'' As the camera pans past Gump to Lt. Dan we know that the God-hating vet will get a second chance. And it is Gump who will give him this second chance.
The idea of Gump as messiah is reinforced when people follow him across the country on his long jaunt, ``running for no particular reason.'' Gump's seemingly accidental presence at defining moments of contemporary American history and his meeting with people who shaped that history assumes proportions larger than just technical wizardry (It isn't very hot wizardry either. The ideas are old it just that the processors have gotten much faster and memory much cheaper.) Gump has survived it all, Gump has succeeded. Gump is the way to go.
In the final analysis it is difficult to accept a world view which bases itself on its opposition to something else. It is difficult to accept a paradigm which derives its justification from satire. The viciousness of the caricature is a contradiction to the ``sweet'' view of the world that the film puts forward. An example of the relentless satire is the rally in DC where the audience cheers whenever the f-word is used. The character of Wesley, Jenny's boyfriend from Berkeley, is also a clear attempt to paint the ``'60s intellectual'' in a bad light. He is a weak, selfish, bespectacled sort of guy who hits his girlfriend and whines when the upright, uniformed Forrest beats him up. As a background to this fight is a version of a Black Panther's office where even militant rhetoric ends up sounding funny; another distorted portrayal. It is difficult to accept the world view of a film which parasitically sucks out the saleability of '60s idealism and then uses the energy derived from that to launch an attack on it.
The bogus innocence of the stupid Gump is obviously a simplistic view of pre-1960s America. In fact the film constructs nostalgia with a view to duping audiences into feeling good. It shows them a warm comfortable hole in the sand where they can bury their heads. It contradicts the existence of the wider horizons that were conclusively demonstrated by the otherwise naive flower children. Any attempt to pretend that Pandora's box was never opened can only lead to an incomplete view of changing realities. And that is the problem I have with Forrest Gump.